Police officer sues Lake Stevens over ‘incompetence’

LAKE STEVENS — A Lake Stevens police officer filed a lawsuit against the city on Tuesday alleging that city officials destroyed his reputation and made him take the fall for their “incompetence and failures.”

Steve Warbis, 45, says city officials mishandled several incidents in which he was accused of wrongdoing in recent years. Those actions, along with the ensuing media coverage, harmed him and his family, and his career as a police officer, according to the lawsuit filed in Snohomish County Superior Court.

The suit does not name a dollar amount, but Warbis has previously indicated he would seek damages into the millions of dollars.

City officials on Wednesday said they stand by their response to Warbis’ initial claim, dispute his allegations and plan a vigorous legal defense.

In the suit, Warbis claims that internal investigations at the Lake Stevens Police Department mischaracterized the nature of his involvement in two high-profile incidents. He says the city failed to protect him and keep him informed of legal proceedings in which he was named as a defendant.

In one case, the city paid $100,000 to settle a lawsuit that accused Warbis of violating a man’s civil rights. In that 2011 case, Warbis and another Lake Stevens officer went to the Marysville home of Brandon Fenter to confront him a day after he allegedly was seen driving recklessly in Warbis’ neighborhood. Warbis was off-duty and walking with his family; Warbis says Fenter drove as if he were going to run over Warbis and stopped a foot or two away. He also says Fenter threatened to shoot him.

In his lawsuit, Warbis disputes reports that he initiated the confrontation by jumping in front of Fenter’s car. Warbis was not capable of jumping at the time, the suit says, because he was recovering from injuries related to “being dragged by a large cow.”

Warbis also says a supervisor approved his plans to visit Fenter’s home the next day to “coach the citizen on traffic safety.” The visit ended in Fenter’s arrest and jailing. Marysville city prosecutors later dropped the charge against Fenter.

Then, in May 2012, Warbis was shocked with an electric stun-gun during an off-duty bar brawl in Everett. No charges were filed in that case. Everett police could not determine who started the fight, documents showed. Warbis maintains that he was the victim of an unprovoked attack. He was on leave from the Lake Stevens department at the time for medical reasons.

Fenter filed his lawsuit in December 2012. Warbis and his family were told the city’s lawyers would be defending them, according to Warbis’ lawsuit.

Warbis alleges that the city’s lawyers failed to do so and did not communicate with him about what was happening before settling with Fenter.

Because of that, the Warbises “lost their ability to correct the public record, have suffered irreparable harm, and continue to suffer, both personal and professional damages; both monetary and emotional.”

The city and its lawyers are accused of “negligent misrepresentation and/or malpractice,” in addition to defamation.

Warbis says city officials wrongly portrayed him as a “rogue cop with a bad temper.” He also says Mayor Vern Little has told relatives not to do business with Warbis’ relatives.

The lawsuit alleges that City Administrator Jan Berg may have orchestrated an attack on Warbis out of a “personal vendetta” against him and the other officer who went to Fenter’s home.

That officer, James Wellington, was fired in December after he was the focus of at least seven internal investigations, and after he failed a “last-chance” employment agreement penned as he headed to rehab for a drinking problem, records show.

In a statement released after Warbis’ initial claim in December, Berg wrote that “the city of Lake Stevens does not ignore allegations received of police inappropriate conduct both on- or off-duty and takes such matters very seriously. The city also defends appropriate action taken by its employees in the course of duty.”

As lawsuits and other troubles involving the police department have made headlines in the past two years, Warbis and his family have been subjected to ridicule, scorn and stares, according to his lawsuit. His children have been taunted, and his wife has been ostracized. Warbis also says that news reports of what transpired, including stories in The Herald, have been “false and defamatory” and “inaccurate and inflammatory.”

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

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